CJ Scruton reflects on the origins of their pandemic-era poemsSelf-Portraits in Jurassic Park” andIn Transfemme Quarantine,” for Shenandoah Volume 71.2, as well as what it means to misremember important moments in our lives and to work to be more open to those uncertain memories.



The opening lyrics of “Road Head” by Japanese Breakfast are candid in a way that is arresting for anyone who has grown up with cishet norms of how you’re allowed to talk about sex. (So, all of us.) The indie pop singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner calls out in her upper register:

                You gave road head on a turnpike exit

                You’re in love, you’re in love


There are really two stories I have to tell here. One story is about how I came to write a couple pained — yet I think pretty fleshy and exuberant — trans sex poems in the first year of COVID quarantine, which ended up finding a really welcoming home in Shenandoah’s Spring 2022 issue. The other story begins with the fact that I have no great memory of what sounds and sensations structured the days when I was writing them, even though I recall that I almost never took off my noise-canceling headphones, alone in my home those earliest months. Following my sparse Spotify “likes,” I noticed I gave “Road Head” a little green heart the day before “Self-Portraits in Jurassic Park” first appeared as a draft in my files.


“Road Head” comes off as nocturnal, laid-back, its backbone a jangled, surf-rock guitar riff in the midst of wandering, reverbed clouds of synths. The harmonies float between G#-minor and B, with the bassline resting often on an E that doesn’t totally lend itself to either of those chords. You get the sense the song ultimately chafes against its minor chord harmonies but is also uneasy with the alternative, always jumping back down to that uncertain, unresolved E. G#-minor and B-major are incredibly similar in practice, as music theory students learn from day one. (Their scales, or the notes you use to play in that key, are identical.) Never totally divulging where the musical home is, the synth lines drift around in dreamy up-and-down arpeggios, which allow Zauner to construct a song less from discrete, discernable chords and more as a harmonic fog the listener drifts through. The end result is a song that sounds almost like a home chord despite never quite landing there with any clear resolution.


Zauner’s marriage of music and lyrics makes perfect sense to me as a way to express certain kinds of sex, or more accurately the lingering feelings surrounding sex. In the first couple years of presenting openly as trans and non-binary, I found almost exclusively partners who treated me in a way many women and femmes will find familiar: the sense that they are bestowing some favor by being willing to have sex with you. This, alongside the constant fear that their attraction will turn to violent disgust in a moment. The sense that you’re lucky if anyone wants to have sex with you, even if that sex makes you uncomfortable or uncertain if this is what you really want. That if someone steps in and treats you decently for a few minutes and makes you feel no one else will ever be so good to you, then that must be love. That maybe love is just the habit of telling yourself, You’re in love. And if it feels odd in your mouth, you can keep saying it until it feels true.


My favorite pop songs often tell differing stories in the words and the music. It’s a compelling narrative tactic, saying, I don’t know if I believe these words, but if I can convince you then maybe they’ll become real. Or, in other cases, the dissonance between music and lyrics can say, I know these words, these feelings, don’t make sense, but if you just feel them with me I promise you’ll understand. “Road Head” sits with those contradictions, those hunches that seem obvious in hindsight but are impossible to express clearheadedly in the moment.


At the time I was writing “Self-Portraits in Jurassic Park” and “In Transfemme Quarantine,” I was coming to terms with the reality that I had been dissociating basically my entire life. (This is not a particularly uncommon phenomenon for trans people, at least according to the monumental amount of informal panic-researching I’ve done online.) It wasn’t so much that I had no memory of my life, but so many of those memories seemed to have the clarity of golden high beams in fog. I could remember thinking consciously during sex, shopping for clothes, everyday conversations with friends: This is what I should be doing right now, yes. But I couldn’t touch any old feelings, any sounds reaching my brain. My life often felt like a silent film reel, rolled back without the music behind it. This might lie underneath my affection for pop songs in general: like poetry, they let you map emotional realities onto moments when the full feeling can’t coalesce yet.


But, also like poetry, these symbols and emotional realities tend to be more slippery than they appear. Perhaps that’s the very power of pop songs, that they can lure you into one version of emotional reality before showing you what the full picture has been all along. (Perhaps, at times, this effect is made even more powerful by pop music’s reputation of being less serious than poetry.) Imagine my surprise when I began to write this piece and realized that my favorite lines from “Road Head” aren’t the real lyrics at all. It’s not even a small mistake — the correct second line is totally different from what I thought I’d been hearing for years:

                You gave road head on a turnpike exit

                Going home, going home


I think my affection for this Japanese Breakfast song was always that it indulged in a bit of sleazy fun but, in doing so, also reflected the complex emotional realities of sex without totally undermining the gratification in casual hookups. The straight world tends to tell us that there is sex and then, a world away, there is love. Pop songs frequently defy this binary by making every seemingly “innocent” theme a coded reference to sex, but some pop music can reflect this duality in particularly clear relief, parsing the party-centric sex hits from the tender love odes and ballads. There are fulfilling, long-term relationships and then there are one-night stands, we’re told. Zauner — in my original (mis)interpretation of the lyrics — points to further possibilities. There’s a hint of self-delusion in the dreamy ramblings of this song’s synth lines under the assertion that you’re in love, but there’s also something calmly powerful in letting yourself feel that reality in the moment, even if the reality reveals itself to be less-than-true later. My affection for the song remains, even knowing the true sentiment is going home. The song is always heading that homeward direction — a direction so many of us had to follow in 2020 and beyond — to a place that’s perhaps safe but also takes us beyond the touch of sex or love, of other people in general. For many of us, home represented a safety from contact, but not a safety from all the violences we locked in our own bodies. Of course, Zauner’s speaker is never actually allowed to arrive home in this song, but rather is always going, going.

In 2022, a slew of bigoted American lawmakers have advanced policies that criminalize offering education and healthcare to young queer and trans people — based on the fabricated argument that queer and trans people are sexually deviant and that the existence of their bodies inherently makes them predatory. This development was not bizarre or unexpected to me. What was bizarre was the extent to which I saw well-meaning straight, cisgender people shocked at this association, as if queer people hadn’t been labelled sexually deviant for as long as any of us can remember. These were the same cishet people who were supposedly supportive of queer people but also felt empowered last year to say MPV would disappear if gay men could only keep it in their pants for a few weeks. This position of ignoring all the racist, colonialist, and homophobic governmental policies that stoked the outbreak in reality shows how even “allies” tend to feel judgmentally squeamish about queer and trans people having sex — so it’s easy to imagine how the rhetoric of our overt enemies makes us feel about the safety of existing in our own bodies. 


The poems I published in Shenandoah this year reflect feelings that have lived invasively in my body for a long time. Like so many other queer and trans people, I was educated to feel my own body was a vessel of impurity, afloat on a pristine ocean and always in danger of tipping, spilling perversion into otherwise crystal waters. I began “Self-Portraits in Jurassic Park” with this Pandora’s box metaphor:

                    if I must be all the evil in the world,

           the box made by my father gods

    to fence me in,


And in writing these lines, I couldn’t tell if I was afraid of the violence others have done to me or afraid that if I let out this violence it would never, ever stop flowing. Alone in my home, all these violences felt like T. rexes or pterodactyls ripping through unelectrified cage wires. If I let the monsters leave the island, there’d be no stopping them, and the whole world would collapse under the weight of this new bloodhungry food chain.


I can’t stop thinking of gaps in understanding. There are multiple ways to mishear song lyrics, ranging from unintelligible singing to the listener’s own subconscious rewriting of the words. It seems that marginalized bodies are so often made into gaps, blank possibilities to be filled with theoretical danger and ungodly chaos — or at best a question mark to be left unanswerable. I’m not trying to suggest that we commit an act of violence each time we sing a lyric wrong, but I am wondering what we learn about our own bodies — and our relations to others — when we consider why our brains have fashioned a gap in meaning, what meanings we pull out of thin air.


In “Self-Portraits,” my metaphor of gaps in understanding involved the violence of others filling those gaps, as the fictional scientists in Jurassic Park took genetic sequences and intuited how to complete them. These gaps “lie,” according to the poem. But “In Transfemme Quarantine” is also my reminder to myself that gaps in understanding don’t always have to be violent. There’s some liberation in the ability to see such gaps, to see the possibilities for filling them, and also to recognize you don’t know exactly what to place there. Like both “Self-Portraits” and Zauner’s “Road Head,” “In Transfemme Quarantine” is about love, as well as sex, as well as danger. In this poem, I give up some ability to let the people I love know exactly what I mean:

                what I’m really trying to say is _________


But this withholding, this refusal of clear knowability can defy dangers, too, with at least some forms of visibility and understanding:

                what they can’t tell you if


                you don’t match your ID

                they still can’t let you

                show your _________


                they know suddenly

                showing hurts _________


When I double-check the lyrics to “Road Head,” I’m still floored by the Zauner’s calmly unsettled relationship to anonymity, visibility, and vulnerability. Even when I’ve misheard the words, this act of rewriting feels oddly apt: the song keeps dreaming desperately along, down a highway at night, the lyrics never truly giving away how the speaker is feeling, who they really are. For me, the song speaks to the moments when setting something in stone — a feeling, a body, a meaning, a memory, a future — can only be a lie. Leaving that gap unfilled leaves you vulnerable but also trusts those who are listening, who do want to get the words right, who want to pay attention to the realities of your body and feelings even if their readings aren’t always accurate.


If I’m totally honest, like Zauner’s song, I remain unsure where home and love really are. What I am sure of is that these questions matter, and this mixture of assuredness and uncertainty — leaving room for others’ certainty as well — felt like the only honest way to end this poem for Shenandoah:

                all that matters being

                who’s meant to be _________

CJ Scruton is a trans, non-binary poet from the Lower Mississippi River Valley. They currently live on the Great Lakes, where they teach English and research ghost stories. Locally, they are a founding member and director of the Milwaukee Queer Writing Project and serve on the board of the Milwaukee Native American Literary Cooperative. Their work appears in The Journal, New South, Juked, CutBank, and other publications.